Notes – My New Version of Planner Fail

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When I first started this blog years ago, I wrote mainly about paper planners. I was a bit obsessive about my Filofax(es) and switched up my “system” just about every week. For anyone in that community, planner fail isn’t uncommon. In fact, Filofaxes almost encourage the behavior, but when I went digital, I thought my days of planner fail were behind me.

Then, a few weeks ago, I wrote about how thrilled I was to abandon Evernote and consolidate all my notes into Apple Notes. Well, it took me about 2 weeks to realize that probably wasn’t the smartest move after all. As much as I thought I’d like having my notes all in one place, in practice, it actually frustrated me.

Now I will say, none of this was a fault of Apple Notes. Apple Notes is surprisingly powerful and handled everything I threw at it. My frustration was due more to how my brain works than software limitations.

Apple Notes originally won me over with its simplicity, but once you add a few hundred notes, it turns out Apple Notes or any system for that matter stops being so simple. Having everything in Apple Notes forced me to accept that I actually prefer having some sort of distinction between my active notes and reference notes.

And this is where planner-fail returns… but as notes fail.

I didn’t go running back to Evernote. I’ve actually enjoyed my time without the green elephant and even turned off my subscription. I also didn’t abandon Apple Notes – at least not entirely. Apple Notes continues to be the home for “active” notes that I access regularly – my heavily-used collection of carryout menus, jotting down quick notes, and things like the list of things to do that I share with my boyfriend.

The rest of my notes, the reference and project-based notes, all now live in…

drumroll

DEVONthink Pro Office!

As a self-proclaimed Mac Power User, the move to DEVONthink has been a long time coming. I’d just been avoiding the learning curve and let’s be honest the price (although the education discount helped!).

While I still don’t care for the dated interface (which I hear may be getting a facelift in the future), there are a number of things I do enjoy.

  1. I get to pick where my data is stored – and it doesn’t belong to Evernote. I have 3 separate databases. My personal database is synced via iCloud. My other two databases, Work and School, are synced via my university’s Box cloud storage.
  2. Getting data into DEVONthink is about as easy as it was with Evernote (and much easier than Apple Notes). DEVONthink’s browser extension does what I need it to for archiving websites, and I can archive emails from Airmail directly to DEVONthink as well (although they’re plain text – Airmail team, if you’re listening, you could do better!). Airmail had no integration with Apple Notes
  3. I can search my notes with Alfred. Alfred couldn’t search Apple Notes which forced me to use Spotlight.
  4. I get to use my favorite apps. Plenty of apps integrate with Evernote and Apple Notes as far as saving things into them, but once something is saved, you’re limited to editing a note within the Evernote or Apple Notes apps. With DEVONthink, I can use the Open with Feature and edit saved files within my favorite apps. (I’m writing this post in FoldingText, but it’s actually stored in DEVONthink.)
  5. Artificial Intelligence – This is a feature I didn’t really think much of when I bought it. It sounded cool, but I figured it’d be a gimmick like Evernote’s, context feature. My main motivation for having a central place to store notes was to hopefully be able to find connections between things I’m storing, and DEVONthink’s AI feature does this automatically! Looking at my book notes for Yuval Harari’s Sapiens, I also get suggestions for notes I’ve taken on his other book, Homo Deus. It even makes suggestions for books I would have never even made connections to like Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael or Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow. This is a game changer (and it may be enough of a game changer to sway me into continuing on for my Ph.D.).

DEVONthink isn’t perfect. I’ve had to make a few changes to adapt to its interface and storage methods, but I’m pretty confident that DEVONthink is here to stay as part of my tool bag of pro apps.

Lastly, if you’re on the fence about DevonThink or were like me and downloaded the trial a handful of times only to delete the app out of overwhelm, I highly recommend reading Take Control of Getting Started with DEVONthink 2.

Photo by Delano Balten on Unsplash

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An Update on Notetaking with iOS and MacOS

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Image Courtesy of  Dose Media

Now that classes are back in session, I’ve had a few weeks to fully test out my notetaking set up. While a number of things worked well, others needed definitely needed work. I realized quite quickly that the multi-app notetaking lifestyle did not work for me.

Evernote

2048x2048bbEvernote has become the backbone of my personal knowledge management system.

I’m really not a fan of Evernote device limits, so I’ve tried incredibly hard to avoid using it over the years, but I recently caved and bought a premium subscription (thanks to an educational discount). The ability to easily add and tag any type of information is something other apps, like DevonThink or Bear, haven’t been able to match.

Anything I think I might need to recall later like important emails, meeting notes, interesting articles, screenshots of error messages, and common troubleshooting steps all end up in Evernote. I also keep any annotated PDFs and notes from classes or quotes from books I’ve read here.

Noteshelf

2048x2048bbEvernote falls incredibly short when it comes to taking notes with the Apple Pencil. Writing or annotating within the app is laggy and requires more mode switching than I’m willing to put up with.

I’ve ditched GoodNotes, Notability, and MyScript Nebo all in favor of Noteshelf due to its ability to sync directly with Evernote. Its organizational structure is very similar to GoodNotes and offers a writing experience similar to what I enjoyed in Notability. It also offers the ability to draw perfectly geometrical shapes which was one of my main reasons for using Nebo. I found Nebo’s handwriting to text conversion more of a really cool gimmick than actually useful in practice.

My one gripe with Noteshelf is its lack of support for iCloud Drive, which is my primary cloud storage for any active projects. For now, this means an added step of needing to use the share sheet within the Files app to add any PDFs rather than using the built-in import feature. Hopefully, they’ll add it in the future.

Annotating PDFs and Taking Notes in Class

For class, I’m using Noteshelf in conjunction with Evernote.

Before class, I import the PDF copy of the assigned article and annotate as I read. During class, I use split screen to continue marking up the article we’re discussing on one side of the screen in Noteshelf while taking any text notes in Evernote. After class, I add the annotated article (synced to Evernote) to the text note created in Evernote so that everything’s stored in one place.

Interviewing Employees

I’m also using Noteshelf for employee interviews. Like GoodNotes, Noteshelf allows me to have a single notebook for a round of hiring. The system my university is using for on-campus jobs allows me to receive a single PDF booklet of resumes for every round of hiring. Prior to the interview, I insert a template page for taking notes behind the resume. Once the round of hiring has finished, I export the entire notebook containing resumes and interview notes to Box for archival purposes.

Apple Notes

2048x2048bbWhile Evernote is my primary location for storing any sort of reference material, I’m still using Apple Notes for things I need to quickly access such as carryout menus, wishlists, and other lists I’ve shared with friends and family.

In all honesty, if Apple adds tagging and a more robust organizational system, I’ll have a hard time sticking with Evernote, but for now, this is the combination that seems to work best for all my needs.

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Some Thoughts on Notetaking on the iPad Pro

Update: An Update on Notetaking with iOS and MacOS

Despite being an Apple fangirl of sorts, I haven’t owned an iPad since the iPad 3 (also known as the “new iPad”, the first iPad with Retina, or as I remember it, the dreadfully underpowered iPad). I was never a huge fan of it, found trouble justifying its use, and ended up selling it when I moved.

A few weeks ago, I became the proud owner of a 10.5 inch iPad Pro courtesy of my job (Space Grey, 256GB, Wi-fi, if you’re curious). I suppose running the tech demo space on campus has its perks. Much to my surprise, I’m loving it. In fact, when running to meetings, I’m finding myself reaching for the iPad Pro and leaving my Macbook Pro in my office.

One of the first workflows the iPad Pro challenged me to reevaluate was notetaking. The Apple Pencil gave me a way to take handwritten notes digitally, and as someone who makes every effort to go paperless, I jumped at the chance. I tend to prefer handwritten notes in a number of circumstances throughout my day:

  • Planning out my day
  • Meetings
  • Interviewing new employees
  • In Class
  • General notes and doodles

After trying a number of apps, hoping to stumble upon the perfect one, I’ve come to the conclusion that one app may not be the way to go in cases like these.

Day Planning

For planning my day, I prefer Notability. While the majority of my planning is done through Google Calendar and Omnifocus, I still do appreciate having a detailed list of everything I need to do in a day to check off as I go. Only important things are in Omnifocus, and until manual sorting is added, the list is often out of order from when I actually plan to do it. Notability provides the best format for writing out my day, Bullet Journal style, and I prefer the Subject/Divider with individual notes organization.

Meetings

I actually gave up handwritten notes in meetings. I think part of me prefers the privacy of typing on a propped up screen as opposed to scribbling on my screen laying flat on a table for everyone to see. For this, I’m using a split screen set up with the shared meeting agenda in Google Docs on the right and my personal meeting notes stored in Evernote on the right. (You read that right, I’m using Evernote. More on that in a later post).

Interviewing Employees

This was the scenario that drew me to the iPad Pro. Several times a year, I have to hire a number of students to work in my office. Such is life when your employee pool is based on a group that leaves every 4 years. My prior workflow involved printing out resumes which I’d review and annotate. Candidates that made the cut are invited to an interview. Before each interview, I’d print out a checklist that I’d take notes on as the interview progressed.

For this workflow, Goodnotes was perfect. Unlike Notability, notes are organized into Notebooks with actual pages. Goodnotes allows me to have a single notebook for a round of hiring. Another feature that makes Goodnotes the winner is that I can set the page template to be the interview checklist. Instead of printing a new checklist for every candidate, I just swipe to a new page now.

In Class

While I’m not in a class at the moment, I can see Goodnotes being my pick for taking notes in my classes too. The ability to annotate articles and store handwritten notes side seems best suited to this app. Classes also lend themselves to Goodnotes’ notebook format nicely as well.

General Notes and Doodles

For simple notes, I’m finding myself using Apple Notes. Apple Notes doesn’t offer as many ways to customize the writing style, it does offer a nice feature of being available from the lock screen. In iOS 11, a simple tap to the lockscreen with the Apple Pencil opens up a new note. This is perfect for jotting down something quick.

(Tip: In Settings > Notes, you can tell Apple Notes to display lines or grids when writing handwritten notes instead of just a blank canvas.)

Honorable mention:

There’s one app that I don’t use all that often, but it’s so darn cool I’ve not managed to remove it from my iPad just yet, and that’s Nebo. In terms of organizing notes, Nebo’s structure is a lot like Notability, but it has a few tricks up it’s sleeve. Scratching through something you’ve written erases it (like crossing it out on paper, but better) Drawing lines between letters or words separates or joins them.

And then there’s there are the features that are just magical. Double-tapping on handwritten text with your finger converts it to text. This also works with diagrams and mathematical equations. In the past, I’ve spent hours on my Mac crafting professional looking diagrams and flow charts to explain workflows to my colleagues. With Nebo, the process takes minutes.

Do you have any tips or tricks for notetaking on your iPad Pro? Another app mention? I’d love to hear your thoughts on what you’re using.

Update: An Update on Notetaking with iOS and MacOS